Posts Tagged ‘security’

Some people appear to truly believe that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide. It doesn’t bother them if their communications are being monitored, or if the government can access the details of every phone call, email, or electronically communicated conversation any of us have ever had. After all, anyone doing something illegal in those communications should be caught – and so long as you’re not doing anything illegal, what’s there to worry about?


Some people have things they’ve said taken out of context, and protest that their words have been twisted in order to unfairly paint them as some sort of scoundrel. They’ve been misrepresented. Something they said as a joke got repeated around as if they’d really meant it. Someone just quoted the first bit of what they were saying, where they were just setting up the devastatingly satirical point that came later, and made them look like an idiot.

The point being:

I suspect that there is a significant crossover between the two aforementioned groups of people.

And that many of those in this intersection don’t realise how much the context issue undermines their position on privacy.

If you’ve ever been in a casual conversation where someone’s unfairly made you out to be some kind of villain, by unfairly twisting something you said or did and refusing to give you the benefit of the doubt, imagine how much worse it could get when there’s a centralised national authority with a monopoly on physical coercion which can do exactly that.

Maybe you’re not even in that second group, though. Maybe you reckon you’re just over on the left of the Venn diagram.

Maybe you aren’t bothered what the NSA knows about you, because you’ve never said anything in private which could ever possibly be misrepresented to embarrass or incriminate you.

Maybe you’ve never said anything unrepresentative of your true views in a moment of passion or exasperation. Maybe you’ve never made an off-colour joke which might seem racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive when stripped of the nuance, subtlety, and irony you obviously intended. Maybe you’ve never said anything on record which can’t be perfectly understood in isolation or could ever be seen to reflect poorly on you.

Maybe you’ve lead a really dull life, is what I’m saying.

In which case, that’s absolutely fine. I don’t mean to judge. It’s not my place to tell you there’s anything inappropriate about living with a level of caution and reservedness that suits you. So long as it’s working for you, knock yourself out. Be totally blameless. Never give anyone a chance to turn anything against you, no matter how tyrannical their efforts to use your own words to indict you. Go for it. I hope it makes you happy.

But that’s not for me. And a world where that’s the only option isn’t one I want to live in.

I want everyone to be able to make tasteless private jokes, offensive comments behind each other’s backs, and clandestine rendez-vouseses to commit acts of which someone somewhere might disapprove, without worrying about the black glove of Dominion suddenly clapping them on the shoulder.

I want creativity and personal autonomy to roam as free as humanly possible, so that every idea, however contemptible or misguided, has a chance to be talked about.

I want Chris Rock to be able to try some new material out, misfire, make some bad calls that don’t land, cause some offense, figure out what he did wrong, hone the routine until it becomes something that connects with people, and not risk being lambasted into oblivion because of an uncharitable and context-free interpretation of the ideas he had to stumble through on the way to somewhere great.

I want us not to have to constantly restrict ourselves to a narrow set of opinions known to be acceptable and uncontroversial, until we forget how to think differently altogether.

I want to have “nothing to fear”, even if I have done something wrong, because fear shouldn’t be the thing that keeps us from doing wrong, dammit.

I want privacy to be a thing.

I want some cheesecake.

Crap, I knew I’d get derailed from my original point eventually. What was I saying?

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I’d really like to think that this is just one of those cases where the freedom-hugging liberati (like me) have leapt onto an urban legend and become prematurely outraged. You know, like those shitstorms over whatever sexy thing kids were supposed to be doing with coloured wristbands.

But it’s getting reported on the AP, and so I think the ACLU is right to object when companies are demanding that potential employees hand over their log-in details to social media sites such as Facebook as part of the recruitment process.

I need a job. I’m still waiting for an interview from any of these basic admin roles I’m firing off copies of my CV for. But I don’t need one badly enough that, if someone asks for my Facebook password to check out my background, I can’t afford to tell them to fuck right off.

If you’re going to consider hiring me, there are certain things you have a right to know about me. The information provided on my CV, and the way I carry myself and answer personal questions during the interview, should cover most of it. But things like my private Facebook updates, my direct Twitter messages, my personal emails? None of your fucking business.

There are things I do and say when I’m unguarded and among friends, which are different from my actions in public or in the presence of people I don’t know. Maybe there are things in there I wouldn’t want a potential employer to see, but it is absolutely not their place to generalise from my private, unguarded musings to conclusions about how I’m going to behave as an employee.

Go back ten years. What if employers then had demanded to read your diary? Browse your internet history? Get a log of all the text messages you’ve received and sent? Check what magazines you keep under the mattress? Examine the doodlings in the margins of all your school exercise books? (Mostly cocks, right? And balls. Mostly cocks and balls. Right?)

None of that would have flown, so what’s supposedly different now? If it’s not information I’ve made publicly available to everyone, if it’s not something I’ve freely discussed with you, and if it’s not a criminal conviction in a field relevant to my prospective job description, then it’s not something you have the right to learn about me.

I might personally be tempted – if I were in that situation, and before I told them just how very off they could fuck – to ask some prying questions of my own, to help me decide whether I really want to enter into a contract with this company. Maybe a close look at its financial records, an analysis of any tax loopholes employed, details of executives’ pay as compared to both company performance and median salaries… that kind of thing.

But of course, these are large corporate entities we’re talking about, and I’m an unemployed worker. It’s clear where the power lies in such relationships these days.

Postscript: Did you know that, before the internet, people often had quite wide nets of occasional acquaintances, and would socialise casually with numerous people, rather than remaining largely isolated or sticking to a small bunch of like-minded allies? I know, right? Crazy times.

Well, maybe not so crazy. If you’re a regular reader or commenter here, let’s be PALS (Personal Associates of Low-level Sincerity). Drop me a line on Facebook letting me know who you are, and let’s broaden those social horizons a little.


(Note: This is an experiment in alpha testing phase. I may get bored of you at any moment, without warning, and go back to just using social media to talk to my actual friends. Nothing personal.)

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A disgruntled resident of Camden, in London, recently posted a video online depicting the source of his gruntlessness:



It shows a little garden-y area outside a block of flats, which he describes as being home to “no illegal activity… no anti-social behaviour“, but which has had a security system installed that instructs him to leave this “restricted area”.

Which seems a little over-the-top, to say the least, for such a low-key, trouble-free place to start seeing these machines popping up threatening to send photographs of people’s faces “for processing”. Who’s going to be processing them, and to what end?

It’s this weird approach to asserting their authority – which more than one commentator has likened to something from Robocop – that’s the most worrying issue. They’re not just keeping an eye on who’s using this space, and recording certain images which can be referred back to for information in the event of, say, a violent incident. They’re also blaring a stern American voice at passing citizens, ordering them what to do in a manner that expects immediate obedience and brooks no dissent.

The message is quite clearly designed to intimidate, to elicit fear, and to cow people into doing what they’re told by their superiors.

Little of which, I suspect, was genuinely in the hearts of the council officials who explained that the voice message was an accident that arose during a battery replacement. But even the fact that such authoritarian browbeating can happen mistakenly merits our attention. Even if it may not have been heralding an oncoming police state, this is exactly the kind of intrusion of over-zealous security measures we should be prepared to make noise about.

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You know when Irish rock band U2 released an album titled How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb?

You remember how they were then arrested and spent several years in Guantanamo Bay under suspicion of possessing illegal fissile material and intent to tamper with restricted government nuclear facilities?

No, you probably don’t. One reason why you don’t remember this is that nobody ever really suspected them of any kind of dangerous or unlawful activities relating to weapons of mass destruction.

It may have been possible that this album title was a surprisingly overt expression of a malicious intent to commit a terrorist act, made by individuals whom nobody has ever had any other reason to suspect.

But it’s more likely that they had their own, more benign reasons for using that particular combination of words, in a way that wasn’t quite literal.

In fact it’s a lot more likely. It probably never even occurred to anyone to weigh up the respective probabilities. They didn’t even waste time investigating the potential nuclear threat, because it was so vanishingly remote.

Unfortunately, that wisdom is something we seem to have lost in recent years.

Otherwise, when a British guy called Leigh joked on Twitter about “diggin’ Marilyn Monroe up” and his plans to “destroy America”, he and the friend he was travelling with wouldn’t have been handcuffed and detained overnight on arrival in the US before being denied entry and sent back home.

Even after five hours of questioning (and a night sharing a cell with Mexican drug dealers), they had still failed to explain the notion of “humour” to airport officials. Their interrogators didn’t find any grave-digging shovels in the tourists’ possession (and yes, apparently they checked), or anything else to suggest that they might have been doing anything other than hyperbolically discussing their party plans. But it was still deemed safest not to let them in.

The phrase I’ve heard that most pithily sums up the problem here, to my mind, is “Suspicion Fail“. The criteria for valid suspicion outlined in that post make sense: you should only view a person’s behaviour as suspicious if it is consistent with “bad” behaviour (such as intent to commit a crime), and inconsistent with innocent behaviour.

In the case of the “destroy America” tweets, these guidelines were not followed with any competence. Anyone who understands anything at all about the way people talk in casual conversation, and the flippancy and inconsequentiality that characterises a significant proportion of Twitter usage, could tell you that this guy’s tweets were entirely consistent with someone innocent of any terrorist intent.

If you are determined to take things that literally, all the time, regardless of the context, in the hope of catching the very occasional terrorist, then if you cast your net widely enough you are inevitably going to achieve a false positive rate which does more damage to society than any atrocity you manage to prevent.

And by the way, if you think what happened is made slightly less unconscionable because the joke tweet in question “wasn’t funny”, then congratulations, you don’t understand anything about anything.

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Interesting report from Ben Goldacre today about drug sniffer dogs used by police. Which might not leap out at you as a fascinating source of potential gossip, unless you have a better sense of these things than I did.

But it’s turning out that the Clever Hans effect might play a bigger role in sniffer dogs’ drug detection than was previously thought. That is, the human handlers’ expectations of where the drugs are might have at least as much impact on the dogs’ behaviour as the actual scent of drugs.

So, if you look like the sort of person who might have drugs on you, it’s possible that you’re just as likely to be barked at than someone who looks innocent but is smuggling dope through customs.

It’s not the scariest affront to civil liberties I’ve heard this week – I doubt anyone’s going to be arrested just because a dog growled at you if you’re not actually carrying anything illegal (though more horrible things have happened). But as Ben points out, it highlights the “theatre” aspect of much of what passes for important national security these days.

One thing I’m left wondering, though, is how sniffer dogs’ efficiency could be improved. I mean, I have no idea how they’re normally trained, or exactly what they’re picking up on in their handlers that makes them think they should take a particular interest in the guy with the beard – but are they perhaps learning these cues in the training itself?

If, when the dogs are learning what scents to look out for and how to respond when they track one to the source, they’re always in the presence of handlers who know exactly where the drugs are that they’re supposed to be finding, then maybe it only makes sense for them to also associate certain human behaviours with the items they should respond. In which case, there may exist a way to re-design their training, so that the only thing they’re cued to react to is the smell of drugs.

Anyone who knows anything about how this kind of thing actually works should feel free to educate me, as ever.

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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.

Aggregator of awesomeness Boing Boing has been doing a pretty thorough job of documenting the exploits of the TSA in recent months, highlighting many examples of how illiberal, unnecessary, awkward, expensive, humiliating, time-consuming, pointless, and downright authoritarian and abusive the US government’s attempts to crack down on terrorism can be.

On top of all that, it looks like they’re not even effective.

We can’t know how many terror attacks, potentially on a scale that could have dwarfed 9/11, were foiled while security staff were drenching a retired cancer patient in urine, taking naked pictures of passengers with untested equipment, stealing thousands of dollars, planting white powder in people’s bags as a prank, frisking five-year-olds, or just enjoying some good ol’-fashioned ball-grabbing.

But we also can’t know exactly how many .40 calibre loaded guns and twelve-inch razor blades people have walked onto planes with in spite of all this.

If I had to guess, I’d say the second number might be a little bigger than the first.

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